Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Border Patrol and my Daytime/Nighttime Strolls down Old Mines Road

I just finished a stretch between Eagle Pass and Laredo. Twenty miles after the former, I passed a town called El Indio, an aerostat radar unit a few miles after that, and then a whole lot of nothing for the remainder of the walk. The pavement petered out, and Raisin and I walked Eagle Pass Road, though nobody calls it that. People call it the Old Mines Road, and it goes all the way into Laredo.

We met TONS of border patrol agents on this road, and because they don't communicate too much with one another and not well at all between regions, I had to introduce myself countless times. As a benchmark for comparison, anywhere else but the border I might have met one law enforcement agent in 100 miles. On Old Mines Road, I met a few dozen in 50 miles.

The BP agents all do a double take. Several pass us, then turn around to ask questions. It's usually the same conversation, but there are notable exceptions due to the agent or circumstance.

On the first day off the pavement, some agents stopped and got out of their car (You never know. Sometimes they stay in and talk to you from the comfort of an air-conditioned car; other times they get out and meet you halfway.). I thought, "Here we go again," but they didn't approach me. They were bent over something by the side of the road. When I got closer, I saw many many foot prints, fresh and about a half-inch to inch deep in the somewhat firm mud. They were trying to learn as much as they could from the prints before continuing any kind of search. I didn't stick around, but thought it was pretty interesting.

Raisin and I hunkered down in the shade on the same day and were resting when several cars passed us on the road. There were BP cars, sheriff cars, fire rescue vehicles, EMT vans. There might have been ten in all. On a lonely dusty road, ten cars turn your head.

A bit later, a couple of BP agents stumbled upon our resting spot while doing a drag pull. The Border Patrol have a system with which they identify the general location of a hiker or hikers. There are several dirt roads on which they drag several huge chained-together tires to make the road flat and mainly smooth. If a walker disturbs the road's dust and stones by crossing it, the BP agents are trained to spot the trail he leaves. This is called cutting sign. By monitoring which roads have been crossed, they can specify the general location of a hiker or hikers.

So the agents were dragging a couple of tires, and I flagged them down to ask about all the cars. Apparently, an 18-wheeler collapsed on a man changing a tire. On the 18-wheeler was a house. Yeah, think about it. All of that came crashing down on a man who, believe it or not, may have survived. But in what condition, I'll never know. Other 18-wheelers were brought out to disassemble the house and lighten the load so the emergency personnel could do their job and get the guy out.

That was day one. At the end of it, we found a decent camping spot hidden off to the side of the road. Little did I know I would be betrayed by my own.

At 2:30am, I could hear a BP truck driving slowly down the road, looking for signs of a crossing. When it got close and the slow grinding of their tires on the caliche road made the rubber growl, Raisin started barking. The car stopped, and a flashlight beam cut through the night. I called out to the men, and the first thing the driver said to me, keeping in mind that we hadn't yet seen each other, was "Do you need any water?" These guys were looking out for me, and though I think Raisin has a lot to learn about stealth camping, I felt good about the encounter. We had a brief conversation, and then on the flip-side of their tour of the road, they stopped to talk for a bit longer. It was bizarre to be having a conversation in the middle of the night while I was in my sleeping bag and these armed agents were standing nearby, but Raisin wasn't intimidated. She was wagging until they left.

The mosquitoes, by the way, were bad on Old Mines Road. They weren't terrible, but it only takes a handful to make your nighttime sleep a little harder to hold onto.

Once the guys left, I got attacked again. I hid under the sleeping bag which was rated at 20 degrees Fahrenheit and way too hot for South Texas hiking. I lasted a couple hours, then got up and took off, saving both our breakfasts for later.

I started the hike with about nine liters of water and knew that I'd have to rely most likely on either mud puddles or the Border Patrol. Since the BP agents usually keep their water cool, I preferred theirs. All the agents I encountered were very helpful with the water resupply, even giving me food in the process. Between Eagle Pass, Carrizo Springs, and Laredo, they've got a really nice team of men and women working for them.

We got stopped again, though Raisin never officially got carded. It's a good thing, too, because dogs have to have a chip in them in Laredo - city ordinance. I didn't understand the sentence, "Are you a US citizen?" due to various factors, the main one being that some agents choose to ask the question all of a sudden. Like this:

"So you're just walking?"
"Where'd you start?"
"Where are you going?"
"Where are you from?"
"Are you a US citizen?"

The question is not a natural extension of the conversation and has tripped me up because of its inherent awkwardness. The majority of agents will ask, so I know it's coming. Still, I sometimes flub it, like going up a staircase carrying something big and thinking there's going to be another step.

So I flubbed, and this raised their suspicions. They asked for my ID, which I gave, and they soon realized I was telling the truth. During this time, another BP car pulled up, and the drivers got out. They walked right up and said, "We got one."

A man had been abandoned by his coyote group and wandered around for five days, totally lost. He was hungry and thirsty and needed to give himself up to survive. So he sat on the road and waited for a BP truck, which given enough time will always come.

I really wanted to see him but refrained from asking. The guys were friendly, gave me some water and a few power bars, and then the same fellow who had spoken of getting "one" warned me of the emptiness of the upcoming stretch of road: "The only people who use this road are oil men, truckers, Border Patrol, and the wets."

It's weird to hear that word "wets," but I know the crossers are using similar terms to describe their hunters like "gringos" and "migra." So strange that with just one word, hundreds of thousands of people can be summed up and brushed off, divorced from their humanity. The fact that it happens in both directions does not make it any better.

The following morning, I woke up at 2:30am again, this time from the mosquitoes alone. I packed up and left, disgusted with my inability to wipe them out (I usually fight them. I've got good techniques, too.). We hit the road and after 30 minutes or so saw the lights of a BP truck coming our way. We walked directly into the light.

While I have a hard time understanding people's general weariness of me when I show up during the day, I have absolutely no problem understanding how unusual it must have been for these men to see a hiker at 3am on a road heavily used by illegal migrants and drug-runners. They rightly had a hard time believing me. I got carded, as usual, but gained their confidence once I cleared. They gave me a refill on water and an MRE, a military "Meal Ready-to-Eat" ration. (One hour later, Raisin and I sat down to our first meal like that. We gobbled it up.) In parting, one agent said, "See you in the morning." And we did, a few hours later with the rising sun.

I was hoping we'd be done with the mosquitoes in the evening, but it just wasn't in the cards. For the third day in a row, I got up at 2:30am to 3am, and started hiking, Raisin by my side. This time, we didn't see Border Patrol for several hours. What did happen took me off guard.

We were walking by moonlight and could probably be seen for quite some ways. I know this because a vehicle honked at me. I stopped and looked off to my left and could see the brakes of a car come on and off. They were telling me, "We're over here. Now come on up." I got very tingly and continued walking, all the while glancing at the hill. They never honked again.

When we finally hit the pavement again, I felt as if several days had passed when in fact I'd only been out of touch for two and a half. We walked a few miles then sat by the road for a break from the heat. A few moments later, a BP car pulled up with a cameraman in the passenger seat. He was videotaping me! From his seat, the agent asked me a few questions, then got out and came over to us. The cameraman and two others got out, and they crowded me and Raisin all while the BP agent was giving me information and asking questions.

Turns out, the non-BP passengers were from National Geographic! They were doing a story on the border on the stretch of road I had just hiked. They asked me some questions, videotaped Raisin drinking some water, and were full of pure energy. During this time, three other BP vehicles showed up, everyone clearly excited about the presence of National Geographic. I asked the first agent about the honk that had happened earlier, and he explained that it was likely a coyote, not a drug-runner, who had called me over and that it was a common technique.

Then just as soon as they had appeared, they were off!

Raisin and I took another day to reach Laredo and stayed with my folks in a hotel for a couple of nights. We're now with a childhood and high school friend named Becky Garcia, and she too is giving us a healthy dose of Texan hospitality. R&R! Read & Raisin!

And that is that. Until next time, folks...

1 comment:

VTZ said...

I went to Del Rio Recently and was wondering if this road was safe for travel. I had my doubts when finding out it was not fully paved. I was driving a car and didnt want to risk a flat tire. I really enjoyed reading about your travel through this road. Sounds like a great experience!